Sri Lankans attend the annual Colombo Book Fair in Colombo. (Photo credit: Ishara S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

In-line, online, and where to draw the line

Notes on Colombo’s books and bookmen in the time of Covid-19

The Colombo International Book Fair, organised by the national Book Publishers’ Association and billed as “Sri Lanka’s largest book exhibition”, is somewhere between a trade expo, a back-to-school promotion, and the scrum outside the Harrod’s sale.

It is a big event. Hosted at the hideous Chinese-built Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Centre (BMICH) – a building I find it impossible to pass without hearing Ottawan’s “D.I.S.C.O.” (you’re welcome) – and almost always in the pissing rain of the late southwest monsoon, the fair, now in its 22nd year, routinely attracts over a million book-buyers across its week-long span.

Its scheduling at the start of the school year is not coincidental. Sri Lankans are obsessed with education (albeit in a rather old-fashioned sense), to the point that you will often see a lot of people at the fair who rather obviously should be in school. It’s also cheap. The entrance fee is Rs20 – less than 10p – and most retailers, even the second-hand ones, offer additional discounts on their already fairly friendly pricing. Less-affluent family groups depart laden with bags of core texts, kids’ books, stationery, and other paraphernalia.

This accessibility has ramifications, of course, and the “International” part of the fair’s title is wildly overstated. I suppose it may mean there are lots of books in English (Harperchollins and Makmilan Book Depot – sic sic – both represented on the paper map), and last year I remember there was an Iranian Cultural Centre stall or similar, which looked suspiciously like it sold nothing much beyond religious tracts. Ditto the avowedly Buddhist outlets, or the Ceylon Bible Society.

There are entire marquees that only cater to Sinhala translations of Dan Brown or Jilly Cooper

So, this is not in any way a showcase of the world’s literatures, nor in fact of full-on literature at all. Though not signposted thus, there are entire marquees (the huge main building, somewhat contrarily, not being used) that only cater to, say, Sinhala translations of Dan Brown, Jilly Cooper, or James Hadley Chase. And while there are, these days, a few author events, all told, it must be said the Book Fair could not reasonably be confused with any kind of literary festival. In fact, given that most, if not all, of the vendors exist elsewhere all year round anyway (sometimes in air-conditioning shops), the distinctly democratic atmosphere of the BMICH can be a tad much for the “serious” reader.

I was only mildly surprised to see the fair back on this year, and in its usual season.

Worldwide, the ongoing Covid-19 situation would seem to rather argue against the gathering of major crowds from all over any nation, jostling, browsing and touching communal things, and then returning to their “outstations” in busy buses, with all their purchases and anything else they might have, er, picked up.

In short, though – and unless there’s been a (literally) unbelievably impressive cover-up – Sri Lanka basically does not have a Covid-19 problem. The government brought the shutters down hard in mid/late March, and for about two months there was a policed/militarised full-curfew lockdown. Pretty much all passenger flights in or out were cancelled, and, to date, incomers – of whom there are very few – are rigorously quarantined for two weeks in hotels or military bases (income-dependent), before spending another fortnight locked down in their own homes.

This was a tough response (esp. economically), and terribly boring – but it was also effective. There have been barely any “community” cases reported in months (this specifically excludes repatriation flights of workers from the Middle East, e.g.), and of the 3400ish total cases from the whole pandemic, all but about 150 have recovered and been discharged from hospital. Out of a population of approximately 22 million, Sri Lanka’s official death toll currently stands at 13.

Accordingly, quite large-scale gatherings are going on all the time, all over the place, without much evident concern. Parliamentary elections were held in early August. Schools in the capital (after a false start) tentatively reopened about a month ago. People have been freely moving round the supermarkets and shopping malls for a long while now. The BMICH itself hosted a three-day wedding show only the other week. There’s no reason why decent book-loving folks should be excluded from the fun.

So, the 2020 fair was held over 9 days, 18-27 of September, presumably to help the throng to spread out temporally and therefore physically. I’d meant to go at 9am on the first Friday, but it was lashing down. So I took a gamble (knowing there’s never really a time when it’s not busy) and went on Sunday lunchtime, hoping people might be elsewhere, doing other things. They weren’t.

I washed my hands at one of maybe two dozen temporary sinks out on the main road, then had my temperature checked by a policeman with a gun-thermometer. At the top of the pointlessly long drive, I joined a quickly moving queue, to write down track-and-trace details, purchase a ticket, and then pass through security.

Anecdotally, I’m sure this year’s event was less packed, and no doubt as a direct Covid-19 knock-on; but any benefit to those of us who did show up was almost immediately cancelled out by the fact that there were now queues (albeit slightly self-selective) for entry into each marquee or building. Some poor young blokes, hilariously, had been deployed to instruct people in said queues to observe one metre’s distancing.

Still, at least it wasn’t raining. In fact, it was extremely hot.

I joined the line for Hall K, which seemed to be specialising in government department and library-type publications (often weird and wonderful as well as cost-of-printing cheap: when I first came here in 2004, thinktank pamphlets triangulating the civil conflicts in Sri Lanka, South Africa and Northern Ireland were all the rage), and whiled away a few minutes watching the overdressed boys flirt with the hand-holding girls, the out-of-towners (where, in fairness, Covid-19 restrictions were always much less stern) stroll innocently round without their masks on, and people pausing at the food stands for Milo, kottu, sweet and “solt” popcorn.

But I soon twigged that the one-out, one-in policy was going to take ages, and would be all the more tiresome if there was then nothing inside that I wanted to buy, so I decided to abort the mission. On the way out, however, I realised that there were no queues for access to the (open-sided) tents housing the less-formal and/or -garishly-sponsored stalls… which just happened to include Colombo’s used-book vendors. Well – what’s a chap to do.

I raided two of my routine connections – lightly, by my standards – but as I geared up for a third, the shambling masses, hollering tannoy messages and queasily bouncing plywood floors were all getting a bit much, what with the incipient claustrophobia brought on by severely restricted mobility and a mask that made it feel like I was breathing soup. I bailed, and walked home, feeling virtuous about not spending money on a tuk-tuk until I blew it all on a restorative cappuccino at the Dutch Burgher Union.

I had to go back a few days later – no, seriously. Hear me out! – because a friend told me that Tisara Prakasakayo (a local publisher of fantastically cheap colonial-era reprints on Ceylon) had their own stand there. I had been told they’d closed down. Long story short, they haven’t; but since they didn’t have what I was looking for I consoled myself with half a dozen other books instead.

On that occasion, though, it had been pouring all day, so there were no queues. There were still people – plenty of ’em: just nobody was making them line up (Sri Lankans do not hold with getting wet). Or fill in track-and-trace paperwork. Or go through security. Outside the building I was looking for, a bored-looking young man sprayed me squarely on the left thigh with hand-sanitiser.

This week the BMICH is hosting a construction expo. Next week, some sort of shopping “festival”. So, life is back to normal, it seems, give or take the masks and the handwashing. As with the schools, essentially, you just can’t make these sorts of environments Covid-proof. The holding of events like this at all represents a widespread understanding (hopefully accurate) that there is not in fact a big coronavirus problem to be dealt with.

It’s only right, though, to note that not everybody shares this view. At least one publisher announced that they would not attend the Book Fair (an announcement which came across as rather pious, but may actually have had something to do with their own health); and, when I shared a photo of my haul on Facebook, one friend made it quite clear that he did not see involvement in such things as smart, for either my sake or the common weal.

The Big Bad Wolf

Big Bad Wolf Books is a Malaysian-based book fair that moves round Asia, selling enormously marked-down books. It brands itself as “the world’s biggest book sale”, and last year’s SL leg – my first, held in the nondescript Sri Lanka Exhibition & Convention Centre – was great. It was open for 10 days, and 24hrs over the weekends. In all, I went four times, including the hopelessly packed “VIP ticketed” preview evening, and at 4am on the final Sunday, mainly just to see what book shopping at 4am on a Sunday in the tropics would be like. Answer: there was at least one family with little children there.

It’s as if Lidl had moved into the world of bookselling

My understanding is these books must be remaindered (or bought up cheap at clearance rates), and/or that there’s perhaps a major tax sidestep for selling them in this manner. BBW does also have a charitable angle (though it’s largely a “please buy a cheap book and leave it at the door for those less-unfortunate” angle), so maybe that helps. Not that I care. The books are new, all English-language, piled high on enormous tables, and have price-tags 50-90% lower than they would in shops in England or even SL (where book pricing is done by a confusing alchemical formula which sometimes renders then more expensive, in flat cash terms, than in a Waterstone’s, let alone Amazon).

The charmless 80m hangar of the SLECC has none of that cave-of-wonders feel of nice old bookshops, but thanks to the business model – and once you’ve skipped sections of junk you’re just not into (fantasy; celeb bios; self-help stuff with titles like The Power of whatever) – it still lends itself to random and eclectic finds. It’s as if Lidl had moved into the world of bookselling. Very much my kind of shopping. And not just mine, clearly: BBW customers are issued with shopping trolleys on their way in and deplete the stocks so fast that staff are constantly visible, using flatbed B&Q-style carts to re-stack tables.

One mate leapt upon a TASCHEN Sistine Chapel folio, which I think may have originally cost $200 (and had to be carried to his not-very-nearby car by two of the younger employees). My wife took the opportunity to grab a pile of kids’ books and book-adjacent items. Several friends (and I) bought vol. 1 of TS Eliot’s collected letters, and some invested in volumes 2 and 3 (we’re talking maybe £5 each, instead of £40-£50 per volume, cover price) before we each in turn worked out how many volumes there must be – the series isn’t even finished yet – and what the complete set might ending up costing us!

Other trophies included Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters Remixed, Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, David Duchovny’s Holy Cow, the Brinkley/Nichter Nixon Tapes, Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, and novels by Panos Karnezis, Nicholas Moseley and Aleksandar Hemon that I’d not previously heard of. And that’s not even all the hardbacks.

Alas, either Wolf HQ didn’t get the memo on the latest SL Covid-19 situation, or they made all their logistical arrangements months ago, with no clear local picture and/or requisite permissions. Whatever the reason, this year the whole thing’s being held online (i.e. not in Sri Lanka at all), and lasts just four days, Thursday-Monday.

It’s still, clearly, excellent value for money. And you only have to spend Rs8000/£35 (easy enough) to get free shipping from wherever (though given that I’m still missing a parcel – of books – from the start of lockdown, the postal thing is not all that appealing). But honestly, I’m just not that interested in online shopping. God knows, it’s not as though I need more books; I just like buying them. And all I’ve seen since I woke up yesterday is that everyone who’s tried to buy has found the website doesn’t work. So, thanks and all – but I can wait until next year, honestly.

One Galle Face

For reasons passing understanding, Colombo Fashion Week is hosting a series of small (and rather shyly advertised) literary events over the next two days, as the conclusion to their three-week “curated retail experiential program” at Colombo’s shiny One Galle Face mall.

The sessions feature three Sri Lankan authors who, in different ways, all shift a lot of copies: multi-prize-winning novelist and children’s author Shehan Karunatilaka, rising sci-fi star and data researcher Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, and humourist Ashok Ferrey.

All three will be reading from their new or recent work, as well as discussing such crucial topics as the unmarriageability of the Sri Lankan male (Ferrey), if it’s OK for authors to start drinking at 8am (Karunatilaka), and whether or not you ought to be afraid of your kitchen appliances (Wijeratne).

The spectacularly-unnecessary mall, a gigantic appendage to the (also totally-OTT) Shangri-La hotel complex – opened exactly halfway between the 2019 terror attacks and this year’s lockdown, full of unaffordable things perpetually at a 10-20% discount, and used predominantly for collaterally-branded selfies (like, um, TGI Fridays) – might not be considered the most obvious setting for these three variously-satirical writers.

But in the current situation and given the continued moribundity of the much-loved Galle Literary Festival, I suppose one shouldn’t grumble. A recent event featuring one of these same authors (OK, and Kumar Sangakkara), at a West Coast beach hotel, cost over £50 to attend. In the circumstances, the fact that literary talks of any kind are happening in a Colombo shopping mall is pleasantly surprising, and that they’re free, more than commendable.

Of course, this ticket, too, comes with a Covid-19 disclaimer from the booking website: that “any interaction with the general public poses an elevated risk of being exposed”, that Eventbrite cannot guarantee your health if you attend, and that you should “follow the organizer’s safety policies, as well as local laws and restrictions.” Well, fair enough. But I’ll still be attending all of them, and gratefully. And I suspect a lot of other people will, too.

**UPDATE**

Well, it seems the US President is not alone in tempting fate re Covid, lately.

As promised, I attended the three readings over the course of last weekend. They were held, I was told without embarrassment, to try and further any kind of economic traction for the creative industries, and all were full, and all were very much enjoyed.

Shehan Karunatilaka gave a jokey Powerpoint presentation about his writing life, and read a little bit of Chats With the Dead that he’s retweaking for the UK edition; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne offered us some roughly scathing and unusually-(mostly-)realist social satire on the new Colombo mercantile class; and then something unexpected happened: Ashok Ferrey, whose cheerful, risqué style is not renowned for troubling itself too much with weighty politics, introduced a quite dark story, written years ago, on the tsunami, with the completely earnest point that this country has seen much worse than Covid-19, and perhaps we need to keep things in perspective. And people – including me – applauded.

Then, yesterday lunchtime, the news came out that a female garment-industry employee (yes, one…) in the Gampaha district had tested positive for Covid, and that as a result every school in the country was summarily ordered to close until further notice.

This represents the first community case in months, and quite rightly the SL government is taking it very seriously. The number of positive results was up to 69 by noon today, Sri Lankan time (which at least means that the tests are being done and processed urgently?), co-workers who commute in the same company vehicle are being traced, and all 1400 factory employees are ostensibly now being tested. Furthermore, the Head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of Covid19, Lt General Shavendra Silva, points out authorities have not yet traced the transmitter of the virus to the unfortunate textiles worker, and so three villages are now under police curfew. And fair enough. 10 curfew-breakers have already been arrested.

But the area in question is ‘near’ the capital (it’s 60km away, near the airport/export zone), and so now the general population is being told to limit non-essential travel, not socialise more than necessary, maintain the ever-impossible 1m distance when in public, etc. The Chief Epidemiologist Dr Sudath Samaraweera announced that the virus could already be out in the community, and so reiterated the importance of the masks, handwashing, and so forth.

Like many people (all of whom, of course, consider themselves right-thinking folk) I’m more than mildly annoyed by this. I wash my hands, and wear my mask. I have – thus far – the modest ‘luxury’ of not contributing to crowding on the buses (my daughter has been asking to go on one for months, and we’ve said no). And I try not to laugh at people when they elbow-bump by way of greeting. Yet I am not the only foreigner to have been stridently directed to the washstands outside supermarkets, say, while local citizens blithely walk straight inside. This very morning, I saw at least half a dozen Sri Lankans out in public without masks, within the space of half an hour. And then perhaps as many as 50 uniformed schoolkids (?!) queueing for some event at the Buddhist HQ building near where I live.

I’m neither a public health scientist, nor an economist. But for one thing, obviously we’re either all in this together, or we are not. And for another, even here people are going to get Covid from time to time, and surely the country cannot sustain a social or an economic environment where the entire island shuts down for days or weeks just because one person (and it was one, when the schools were ordered to close) gets a Covid diagnosis. Where – or more accurately when – would that end? Even if Sri Lanka successfully denies the virus access for a year or so, what’s going to happen when one day it has to reopen its borders?

As I write, my wife has just passed on the rumour that the booze shops are to close from 8 tonight. If that’s not to-the-bunkers code, I don’t know what is.

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